When Holiday Parties Go South: Dinner Table Conflicts and Personality Types

“War is over – if you want it.” – John Lennon

For many, the holiday dinner table can be – to paraphrase Dickens – the best of times and the worst of times. All that cheer and goodwill bundled into one neat little event can be blown to bits by the wrong comment starting the wrong conversation. It doesn’t take much for a festive celebration to go off the rails, leaving family members and friends angry and hurt. Way to drain the party of all its fun! 

Unfortunately, we live in a world that’s becoming increasingly tribal: politics, religion, types of relationships, generational differences, and a catalog of other social and cultural divides lurk within many a family or even group of friends. (Who have you unfriended in the last year?) And this doesn’t even touch the interpersonal and relationship tensions that can explode over the holidays. (“I can’t believe she actually married that jerk.”) 

One or all of those topics are ticking time bombs if implanted in the middle of a holiday. Uncle Joe or Cousin Eileen just has to say that one wrong thing, and the fuse is ignited. Blam!

But you’re not helpless, dear reader. When the emotional shrapnel flies, you’re armed and armored with the strengths of your personality type (let’s call them “gifts,” since this is about the holidays). Whether you’re an innocent bystander watching others go at each other, or you’re an active participant in the fray, there are things you can do to salvage the situation, lower the temperature, and try to restore good cheer. The day need not be lost to the negative impulses that take the shine off the holidays.

Is it your responsibility to bring peace to your celebration feast? It may not be, but c’mon… It’s a holiday. Nobody wants a sumptuous meal to devolve into a battlefield. Tinsel is always nicer than tension. There’s no surefire way to dissolve a conflict, so all the attempts in the world may not work, but at least you’ll know you tried. And if not you, who?

Diplomats: The Name Says It All

Traps to Avoid: There’s nothing like a social cause or a sense of unfairness to light a fire under those who share the combination of Intuitive and Feeling personality traits – and more power to you, Diplomats, but maybe not as the gravy is being passed. Perhaps for the relatively brief time that makes up a holiday dinner, you might forget that Aunt Betty displays tendencies that may not be outright bigotry, but come close. In this moment, perhaps she’s the one who needs your compassion and understanding. 

Showing compassion isn’t the same as condoning what you perceive as her wrongheaded ways. We know you dislike ignoring such things. But maybe – just for today – accept your imperfect aunt for who she is. C’mon. You can do it.

Proffering the Peace: When the dinner discussion gets hot, you might cool things down by pulling out some of that empathy and sense of fairness Diplomats are known for. Traditional diplomats (small d) often find that common ground can calm tension and promote agreement. Diplomat personality types (capital D) like finding the potential in themselves and others, and looking for the good in each person’s motivation is a great chance to do this. 

You don’t have to agree with someone’s conclusions to accept the possibility that their reasons for believing what they do may come from a good place. Perhaps they’re attempting to deal with something they (or you) don’t fully understand. Maybe they believe they’re protecting themselves or others. You may think their methods misguided, but remember, their motivations may be solid. 

So, show that, on some level, you’re respectful and appreciative of everyone, and see if finding that kernel of good in all parties helps reduce the tension. It’s worth a try, right? You can always attempt to set others straight later – away from the holiday festivities – but only if you feel you must.

Analysts: Sometimes What We Don’t Say Makes the Most Sense

Traps to Avoid: If the purpose of a holiday dinner is jovial camaraderie, then perhaps the most rational thing is to refrain from contributing to any tension that would mess with the holiday cheer. However, if you’re an Analyst personality type and you believe someone is making a clear error in reasoning or has faulty information, it’s likely hard to resist correcting their dysfunctional thinking or misinformation. 

There’s nothing wrong with offering logical truths and accurate information. But maybe it’s more useful to remember why you’re at this dinner. Maybe this isn’t the time to set others straight. Maybe it’s more reasonable to apply a softer touch – rather than hard logic – in this context.

Proffering the Peace: Let’s say Uncle Ignacio says something outrageously wrong right after he serves the main course. Tension rises almost palpably around the table. Do you ignore it and fade into the wallpaper? You probably won’t, no matter what advice you’re given. Do you change the topic and talk about how succulently the turkey turned out? That’s not you, either. 

How about playing a game instead? Let’s call it “Anthropologist.” Tag. You’re it. 

“Uncle Ignacio, you know, I’d love to hear more about that. Maybe after dinner, you and I can get together, and you can help me understand that better.” Hopefully, Iggie will take the hint, feel gratified by your generous offer to listen, and curb the controversy until later.

After dinner, in your “Anthropologist” role, your job is to get as much information about Uncle Ignacio’s contentions as you can while remaining totally objective and nonintrusive. An anthropologist generally tries to make discoveries while leaving the culture being studied undisturbed. (Think of the Prime Directive from Star Trek.) Ask a lot of questions. Paraphrase his responses in a kindly and fair manner. Avoid drawing conclusions and speaking sarcastically at all costs. Allow Ignacio to “decompress.” 

Two things might happen. Uncle Ignacio might feel heard – a very generous gift on your part. Having someone show interest and take you seriously is always nice. 

As a bonus, if you question Iggie gently enough, you might even see him drop any defensiveness and backpedal as he talks himself out of what you consider a ridiculous notion…or, at least, he might soften it. Don’t insist on this and don’t expect it, but you never know. Privately consider it a point scored if he does and his feelings aren’t hurt. (You need both for the point, Analysts.) 

Sentinels: Let Your Guard Down for the Holidays

Traps to Avoid: There’s something about the holidays that reinforces all the consistency and tradition you value so much. And then, right in the middle of everything, someone drops some controversy into the conversation – shattering any chance of the pleasantness that might have been. It’s very tempting for Observant, Judging personalities like you, Sentinels, to get strict and rigid and become upset about such a provocative intrusion, but that’s likely to raise tensions even higher. Trying to inform adult people how adults should behave on such occasions isn’t likely to help, either.

How about imagining yourself as a surfer instead? You don’t want to be wiped out by the disagreeable wave. Instead, ride it with skill and remain gracious. Stay upright. Be gentle and react capably, rather than impulsively. This approach is different from ignoring problems and is more about properly engaging others in the context of the holiday, despite any disagreements. Cling to the reason for the season. Don’t try to force it on anyone else. Don’t try to be in charge of others, but do manage your own reaction, stay calm, and try to be an example. 

Proffering the Peace: If you feel so inclined, you might take this graciousness a step further when a conversation becomes strained. Whether you’re the host or not, assume the role of making sure that everyone is comfortable and having a good time. Offer some neutral support. Make sure Aunt Ling gets the cranberry sauce passed to her before it’s all gone. “Does everybody have water?” “Do you have enough room to eat at that corner of the table?” “Can we make more room for you?” Whatever it takes to foster civility, think of it as a preemptive strike.

If emotions flare, the act of promoting goodwill may be daunting – and even feel impossible. But if just one person has a better time or feels some comfort because of your efforts, you’ve done something very responsible and in line with the purpose of the gathering. You’ll probably feel better for trying rather than passively being buried underneath all the rancor and bad feelings. And who knows? Others might catch on and imitate you.

Explorers: Are We Having Fun Yet?

Traps to Avoid: With your focus on the here and now, you’re less likely than most personality types to get hooked into heated discussions about political ideology or similar fuel for arguments. Your live-and-let-live attitude probably skates the interpersonal issues as well. 

However, as an Explorer, you also love novelty and excitement. It could be tempting to say something just provocative enough to get things rolling. “Doesn’t this dinner look just the same as last year’s dinner? How about shaking things up? Here, I’ll order a pizza for an appetizer!” Keeping things interesting isn’t a bad thing, but maybe there’s a fun and upbeat way to do so without straining everyone’s emotions. Be creatively provocative, in a positive sense.

Proffering the Peace: You’re among the most flexible of personalities. You tend to improvise better than most, and this can come in handy when things go south at a dinner party. Peacemakers are often those who aren’t so stubborn that they can’t see the potential for compromise. Bingo! That might be you.

Thinking on your feet is a skill often attributed to your personality type. If you set your mind on calming things down, there may be a chance to find a useful solution for any dinner table tension. Think of rising hostility as a minor emergency – and consider yourself the first responder. 

What can you do to keep things relaxed and celebratory? Maybe it’s something as simple as telling a joke. Who’s offended, and how can you help them feel better? Who’s most aggressive, and how can you help them calm down? There’s no single, canned answer to any potential problems at the table, but you’re more likely than most to resist such a response anyway, Explorers. You love thinking outside the (stuffing) box. You’ve got this.

Do No Harm

Obviously, it’s not necessarily your job to referee or mitigate conflict during the holidays. You may have noticed that most of the advice above had more to do with modeling certain behaviors than actual conflict resolution. Ultimately, our advice is this: be a good example and spread calm and respect for others using your unique personality traits. Instead of feeling like you need to take on the responsibility of stepping up, think instead of how you might maintain your composure and spread the love. 

Oh, and happy holidays!

2 weeks ago
First of all, thanks for the advice. This really helps when family dinners end up going bad. Second, this is an interesting family. Uncle Ignacio who’s has quite unrational beliefs, Aunt Ling, Uncle Joe and Cousin Eileen all have controversial beliefs AND Aunt Betty has slightly bigoted tendencies? Round that up and you got an interesting family dinner.
2 weeks ago
Thank you very much. Often I have questioned myself, why family gatherings sometimes can get so awkward. This adds to greater understanding. :-)
2 weeks ago
As someone who lives in an ideologically divided family filled with strong-willed hot heads... Thank you! I can't tell you how many holiday seasons have been ruined by dinner table conversations gone bad. I always try my best to defuse situations like these so this is much needed advice. Thanks again!
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